Learning in the Digital Age

Watching the videos and reading the articles of the week two of our E-learning and Digital Cultures class, there were three themes that caught my attention:

  1. The role of technology in changing the way we learn;
  2. The capabilities and limits of online education;
  3. The dichotomy between freedom/flow of information and security/privacy.

I wanted to discuss all of them in one blog post but it was becoming too long and difficult to overview. So now its Plan B: I’m doing a comment mini-series! Installment one: learning and technology.

techoverload-590x390The way I learn has undergone a massive change since the time when I started school back in 1990 and technology has a lot to do with it. Throughout my 12 years of school we were sitting in classes, watching our teachers write on their blackboards and scribbling notes in our notebooks. I still remember my dad bringing home a CD of Encarta Encyclopaedia sometime around ’97 – it was amazing to have all that information just a click away and helped immensely with homework! Of course, I had to translate the contents from English to Latvian but that was a small price to pay.

In the 15 years since then I’ve been using technology more and more. I was still doing handwritten course notes during my BA and MA studies but lately I’ve moved to using MS OneNote for my PhD class and conference notes instead. Taking this online class has taken technology use in learning to a whole new level: I watch the week’s videos on my TV, send the articles to my e-reader to take them with me and read when I have the time, and then come back to the PC where I assemble my notes that are now reinforced with links to videos or other relevant articles.

If the future that is envisioned in the Microsoft and Corning videos of this week truly arrives one day, learning (and working) is going to become even more interactive. In fact, after watching the videos, I wondered for a moment whether technology really needs to be everywhere and used for everything. Above all, I wanted to know: is there a place for books and libraries in this world? And it’s not just about books, education in the corning video was practically text-free. Don’t get me wrong, I found quite a few of the ideas awesome, but it made me think:

will form become more important than the content?

The two videos show environments where images are prevalent and textual information has become secondary. Although this can be an exciting and effective way to learn, it may also mean that kids that grow up with this kind of technology will develop a different way of perceiving and processing information: one based on pictures rather than on letters. This, of course, is not bad per se, assuming that they never have to read and analyze a classic novel.

The question is, how would such changes in technology impact the quality of our learning? In the early 1990s there was a quite lengthy (and, sadly, inconclusive) debate about the impact of writing software on the quality of students’ work. For example, an intriguing and quite disputed study “Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message?” (1990) claimed that students who used IBM computers wrote better papers than students who used Macintosh due to the differences in the design and operating systems between the two computers. Namely, IBM software made users focus on verbal correctness, while Macintosh was more graphics-oriented.

I haven’t seen a recent academic debate about these questions but there’s plenty of examples all around us of cases when the method of presenting information is becoming more significant than the actual content that is being presented. Case in point: CNN. I recommend you to watch this entertaining yet informative clip from the Daily Show “Investigating Investigative Journalism“. It that tells the tale of CNN firing their Investigative Journalism department and pouring money into projects like hologram journalists instead because, apparently, that’s the way to make money in journalism these days.

Long story short, what I’m trying to say here is: use technology, but with consideration. “Because we can” and “because its cool” are not a good enough reasons to introduce new gadgets, particularly in education. Although an exciting presentation of the material may facilitate learning, it will have little value if the material itself is not up to standard. And yes, I know what you think: good material with bad presentation will not work either. But that’s probably just stating the obvious.


Image credits: qthomasbower & Arne Kuilman (Creative Commons)


  1. “Because we can” and “because it’s cool” seem to be the prevalent reasons for a lot of new technology. Just because someone can think it up and make it, does not mean it is worth using – as evidenced by the number of inventions that never get off the floor. Discretion seems to be the order of the day.

  2. Totally agree with everything. I too am part of a generation with a foot in both worlds. We didn’t have computers at school and even at uni students were only just starting to use pcs. I had a mobile phone but in those day texting wasn’t possible (my god how did we manage! :-). I use my iPad for everything so I might be a bit guilty of “because it’s cool” and “because I can”. However, I am also using my pad for reading the Odyssey for example. Best of both!

  3. […] in my mini-series on the 2nd week’s material of E-learning and Digital Cultures! In my previous post I outlined my opinion on the pitfalls of using technology for technology’s sake and the […]

  4. I am in agreement with the conclusion that bad content, will not transform into great content, because the presentation is fascinating…nor will it ensure learning has taken place.
    However, I am a visual learner – I see and learn in pictures and colours, associative learning, not quite linear learning…which I associate with only word based learning.
    Im from a generation, where I almost take tech for granted and its space in my life…having had a home computer from the age of 10 and internet access from +-17. I remember how much easier school assignments were because of the computer – handing in typed and printed assignments, rather than painstaking hand written ones…being reminded that plagiarism would not be tolerated under any circumstances (wider research access)…chatting to programmers and developers across the Microsoft chat site…not just because it was cool, but because it actually contributed to learning for that particular field – computer science programming.

    My point is, learning already takes places in many forms, and the tech need not take over it…the room for engagement and discussion (Whether via tech or in person) will not disappear. Perhaps in the IBM vs Mac case study, all it highlighted, was an outdated school system, that didnot take into account different learning patterns of students – visual learners vs linear/logic learners…the tests was perhaps already defaulted to advantage of the linear thinkers, regardless of what tech they were using (do consider testing bias). And yes, more creative types do use Mac more. Does that indicate more of their personal and preffered choice of interaction, or inadequacy in the tech, or dare I say it, inadequacy in the case study itself?

    Another example of where tech and discretion meet…even though we could “see” the art gallery via the Internet site, our class still went into the art gallery to critique and study the works there. There was just something, that we would miss…like Im not sure how well tech display would show the texture the artist used, nor why this is relevant to budding art students. Although having a camera along certainly helped review it again later and comments we all had hand written. Today, we’d do as @Ilze does, use One Note 😉

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